Falcons 2020 roster outlook: 4 things to know about the linebackers

RosterLBs

Editor's note: This is No. 7 in a series detailing each position group on the Falcons' 90-man roster.

FALCONS ROSTER PREVIEWS

The linebacker position in the NFL has undergone a transformation unlike any other. Speed and versatility are now trademarks of modern linebackers, and the Falcons' unit is a testament to that approach. De'Vondre Campbell is no longer on the roster, but Foye Oluokun is expected to take over his role alongside Pro Bowler Deion Jones. There are some new faces among this group, but the approach should stay the same.

2019 returning production

Table inside Article
Player Games started Tackles Tackles for loss Passes defended Interceptions Forced fumbles PFF grade
Deion Jones 16 110 8 5 1 0 76.6
Foye Oluokun 3 62 2 0 0 1 62.2
Ahmad Thomas 0 1 0 0 0 0 60.0

2019 incoming production

Table inside Article
Player Games started Tackles Tackles for loss Passes defended Interceptions Forced fumbles PFF grade
Deone Bucannon 1 28 1 0 0 0 53.6
LaRoy Reynolds 0 6 0 1 0 0 37.3

Here are four things to know about the Falcons' linebackers heading into 2020:

1. The linebacker position is changing

It's almost a bit of a cliché at this point to talk about how different linebackers are today compared to the massive run-stuffers of gridiron legend. Something Falcons coach Dan Quinn said at this year's NFL combine leads me to believe that there may be an even more subtle change occurring with the position.

"You're seeing some bigger college players who are safeties that play the nickel position, they're good blitzers off the edge," Quinn said. "Sometimes you even see a linebacker in that spot. We're seeing some of the linebackers that are so fast that play out in space. I think you're right, the modern era of nickel defenses is about having some versatility, and when you want to play some man-to-man, how do you match up?"

More than ever, NFL defenses – especially at the second and third levels – seek to put athletes on the field as opposed to defined positions. Defenses operate out of nickel packages more frequently than base packages, and we're beginning to see teams experiment with the players on the field in those looks. Jones and Oluokun are the returning Falcons linebackers with any serious experience, but that isn't reason to panic. With a deep group of safeties on the roster and the addition of another hybrid player in Deone Bucannon, the Falcons have plenty of athletes to keep up with the trends.

2. Oluokun ready for a starting role

A former sixth-round draft pick out of Yale, Oluokun has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2018 draft class. After finishing second on the team with 91 tackles as a rookie while filling in for half of a season while Jones was out with a foot injury, Oluokun went back to a rotational role in 2019. He began to push for more playing time as the year progressed, however, playing at least 40 percent of the defensive snaps in all but two games after the bye week.

With Campbell off the team, Oluokun has been pointed to as the player most likely to step into his starting role. He's a sure tackler, as evidenced by his missed tackle rate of 6.1 percent last season and has the coverage skills to keep up with opposing tight ends. Oluokun has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff about his intelligence and ability to recall information. He will be an important player for Atlanta's defense.

3. Jones is Atlanta's best weapon against division

Given the caliber of the offenses within the NFC South, Jones' presence on Atlanta's roster is massive. He was the fourth-best coverage linebacker among players with at least 200 coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and Jones is especially adept at locking down opposing running backs in coverage. With Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara in the division, that skill is often put to use, and Jones has been masterful against those two players.

McCaffrey, an All-Pro and one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL last year, has scored just two touchdowns in his career against Atlanta, and only one as a receiver. Against the Saints, however, McCaffrey has five career touchdowns, including three as a receiver, and against the Buccaneers, those numbers are five and two, respectively. Kamara, meanwhile, has scored a combined 13 touchdowns against the Buccaneers and Panthers but has never scored in a game against the Falcons.

Drew Brees and Tom Brady are quarterbacks who like to get the ball out quickly to players in space, while McCaffrey is very much the center point of Carolina's offense. In a division with those dynamics in place, Jones is an essential player in the middle of Atlanta's defense.

*4. Who will the key rotation players be?  *

The Falcons selected Mykal Walker in the fourth-round of this year's NFL Draft, and he offers the same type of physical skillset that Campbell did for Atlanta. With plenty of length and range, Walker could have an early-down role for the Falcons fairly early in his career. He's certainly a player to watch when he gets reps on defense, and he figures to be a key part of Atlanta's special teams units.

Another player who might be a regular member of the rotation is Bucannon, who's past performance suggest he could be a factor in nickel packages. As mentioned earlier, teams aren't really giving three linebackers a high volume of snaps due to the usage of nickel packages. Oluokun and Jones likely aren't players who will come off the field too often, but Atlanta has added to its linebacker depth this offseason. That battle should be one of the more fun ones to watch in camp.

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